Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman

by Eric Byrd

Have you ever seen Sherman? It is necessary to see him in order to realize the Norse make-up of the man – the hauteur, noble, yet democratic: a hauteur I have always hoped I, too, might possess. (Whitman)

51Va+HTg1FLAbraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman are the conspicuous figures in the revolutionary re-founding of the United States. The victory of which they were the grand strategists and the most acclaimed media actors seemed to decide some of the fundamental questions the Founders had left to ambiguous laws and a faith in future compromise; a victory that eased, though it did not resolve, the existentially divisive “Negro Question” James Madison noted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “the States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but principally from their having or not having slaves. [Difference] did not lie between the large and small States: it lay between the Northern and Southern.”

In his essential orations – the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural Address – Lincoln is a civic priest or poet, rhetorical guardian, keeper of ideals whose phrasemaking points to a transcendental order. He promised Americans that though their republic had collapsed in an orgy of violence, their ideals were imperishable, and waited be reborn from the bloody struggle. Grant, ancestor of all our taciturn gunslingers and laconic detectives, is the heroic everyman, the homely knight, the General-in-Chief who wore a private’s blouse in the field and appeared apolitical, ambitious of nothing beyond speedy victory, and so able to allay Americans’ traditional republican fear that a powerful general is a potential dictator.

06-1292aSherman is the scourge, the eccentric terror. The harsh style of his widely reprinted reports and official letters provided the public with a “vocabulary of the drastic,” wrote Charles Royster, and ensured that to many Unionists “his public character embodied the severity needed for the crushing of the rebellion.” He embodies that severity still, reduced to a now nearly anonymous aphorism (“War is Hell”), to the cinematic image of Atlanta in flames, and to the famous Matthew Brady portrait that made Evan S. Connell think of a “vulture with scrofula.” Of course Sherman, like Lincoln and Grant, is far more than his image, and a deeper study of the man is essential for the student of America’s consolidation and expansion. Sherman is one member of the late nineteenth century power elite who will tell you how the sausages were made, and in prose of nervous vehemence, half despairing, half gloating, with that note of philosophic detachment that creeps into discussions of the inevitable. He could also wax lyrical; the Mississippi River was to him a national Tree of Life, and he reminded a New Orleans correspondent that the city was

the root of a tree whose branches reach the beautiful fields of western New York, and the majestic cañons of the Yellowstone, and that with every draught of water you take the outflow of the pure lakes of Minnesota and the dripping dews of of the Alleghany and Rocky Mountains.

He was subject to bouts of depression and reread Shakespeare constantly; he ends his memoirs with lines from Jaques’ melancholic soliloquy. He was prominent in the ruin of the rebellious slaveholders and the destruction of the nomadic tribes that hunted on the Great Plains; and for someone perched on the usually euphemistic heights of American power, he was villainously candid about the requisite violence and terror, and he was full of personal paradoxes.

Sherman was a nationalist who had contempt for his nation’s politics, and little faith that its form of government could bind the demotic motley across a vast continent. He was an elitist who built one of the great peoples’ armies, an authoritarian who poured out doses of anarchy, as lessons. He was a racist who approved of the subjection of blacks, but attacked the slaveholding South in a most carnival fashion, staging briefly, theatrically, from town to town, that society’s nightmare of licentious revolt. He was an empire-builder who could spout all the optimistic abstractions – Progress, Industry, Civilization – and still graphically describe the killing and displacement behind them.


In Fierce Patriot, forthcoming from Random House, Robert O’Connell teases out the “tangled lives” of this complicated figure. O’Connell’s structure is thematic, non-linear, because it seemed to him that “three separate story lines, each deserving independent development, emerged out of the man’s life.” O'Connell's book is an elegant treatment of many important themes, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to this odd member of the American pantheon.

In the first section, “Master Strategist,” which takes up little more than half of the book, O’Connell narrates Sherman’s public career, and the long military education that culminated in campaigns of continental scope. “The General and his Army” is the story of how Sherman, given to antidemocratic rants and initially suspicious of the civilian volunteers, found in the levee of self-reliant, improvisatory farmers and mechanics the perfect instruments of his arduous and unorthodox campaigns. “The Man and His Families” recounts Sherman’s fraught personal life. He was orphaned at age nine, married his foster sister, and spent years searching for a way out of the shadow of the foster father-in-law, Senator Thomas Ewing, a forgotten Ohio bigwhig who was always trying to get Sherman to resign from the Army, quit his remote deployments and entrepreneurial forays, and come on home, where his sister/wife almost always was, and take up one of the family’s dreary businesses. The marriage was defined by intermission and passionate, or at least productive reunion (seven children); in the postwar years there was a lengthy separation. No biographer, including O’Connell, has made the marriage come fully to life, at least for this reader; and beyond two known mistresses, the sexual details of Sherman’s lionized retirement – New York City, the lounges of prestigious clubs, the dinners, the premieres, the actresses – remain behind the veils of Victorian discretion.

O’Connell’s writes snappy, colloquial prose, and his story of Sherman and his “boys” is very engaging. We cannot hear too much about the western armies – settlers’ sons – especially the elite core Sherman marched from Atlanta to the sea and up through the Carolinas and Virginia. When they finally reached Washington D. C. Whitman gave them a cruisy inspection, as they milled about the squares and packed the streetcars. He says that in comparison to Eastern soldiers they were “more slow in their movements,” had “no extreme alertness.” “They are larger in size, have a more serious physiognomy, and are continually looking at you as they pass in the street.”

They were the war’s champion fighters. Grant and Sherman prized their ability to sustain campaigns in undeveloped country (the fever swamps of Mississippi and the Carolinas, the timbered mountains of east Tennessee and north Georgia), building the infrastructure along which they would conquer, and foraging when cut off from that infrastructure. Drawing from many skilled occupations, these armies could supply any sudden want of “know-how.” At one stage of the Vicksburg campaign Grant found the roads on the west bank of the Mississippi unusable – mere footpaths along the levees, washed out in many places – and so had to float his food downriver, past Vicksburg’s formidable guns, on barges lashed to steamboats. When the contracted civilians crews refused to run the gauntlet, an eager crowd of prewar riverboat pilots and boiler-tenders sprang from the ranks. Grant confessed that he was somewhat less impressed by Prussia’s 1870 march on Paris after he toured eastern France and saw the well-developed road networks.

O’Connell rightly calls Sherman the Northern general who more than any other, even Grant, demoralized the Confederacy, assaulted its pretension to nationalism, frightened the people, broke their pride, but he downplays one of the attributes that made Sherman so effective a psychological warrior: his racism and prewar comfort with slavery. It would seem that Sherman’s periods of residence in the South and empathy with slaveholding society gave him insight into its fundamental fear of slave revolt. There is a revealing line in his famous exchange with the rebel general Hood. Hood accused Sherman of barbarity for the expulsion of civilians from Atlanta, and Sherman shot back with a list of the outrages and perversities of the rebellion, among them the seizure and imprisonment “of the very garrisons sent to protect your people against negroes and Indians.” Sherman had spent much of his prewar military career in the South, posted to South Carolina forts, and assigned to the forces tracking bands of Indians and escaped slaves in the swamps of Florida; in his view the Federal presence in the South had been a bulwark against slave revolt, the Army a guarantee of the region’s order.

Accounts of Sherman’s passage through Columbia, South Carolina, make it sound like a simulated slave revolt, a purposeful demonstration of chaos. Columbia was “the cradle of Secession,” the first state capital to leave the Union and proclaim Southern nationality. In the first night of his occupation Sherman allowed freed slaves and numbers of his troops to run amok in the city, burning and looting its affluent districts and humiliating the leading citizens. Black men and soldiers sought out the man who kept a pack of bloodhounds used to hunt down escaped slaves and Union prisoners. They killed his dogs and tied him to a tree; then the black men flogged him by the firelight of his burning house. Though in the path of the fire, some Columbians were reluctant to leave their houses because, they explained to one Union officer, “Why, niggers will kill us.”

In the morning Sherman imposed full discipline, rounded up his stragglers, left a hundred rifles to such civil authorities as remained, and marched on, to the next stop of what O’Connell aptly calls the “roadshow” of emancipation. Sherman’s culminating performance was the Grand Review of the returning armies, May 23 and 24, 1865. GrandreviewTwo hundred thousand troops paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the boxed dignitaries of Washington and seventy-five thousand cheering citizens. Sherman’s forces marched on the second day. Whitman, then clerking at the Indian Bureau, noted that divisions were preceded by pioneer battalions (“real Southern darkies, black as tar”) marching with shouldered axes. They had felled forests and laid the log roads on which the army had crossed the Carolina swamps. And taking up the rear, the families of freed people who had followed Sherman’s army out of bondage, and into an uncertain future.
Black residents of Washington would also trail President Grant’s Inauguration Day parade, and be jeered. With Lincoln killed, these generals were their hope.